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A generation of children should not be labelled as suffering with mental health issues, the mental health minister has warned as she told MPs that some families enjoyed the coronavirus lockdowns.
Nadine Dorries said society should not “hang the label of mental health around everyone’s neck” and said she is aware of unfortunate language that has started to prompt a “kickback” from mental health trusts.
Ms Dorries also revealed that demand for eating disorder services over the past 11 months of the pandemic has risen more than a fifth (22%), and acknowledged the Government is playing “catch-up” over mental health provision.
But she said she faces “no barrier when I request money for mental health from Treasury” and the focus is on training staff so they can deliver the services that are needed.
Ms Dorries told the Health and Social Care Committee: “It’s been a difficult year for everybody, and it’s particularly been a difficult year for children and people who’ve not been in school, who’ve had their routines disrupted, who’ve been separated from their friends, from their social life, from the normal everyday that keeps children and young people happy.
“We did see, particularly early on in lockdown, children and young people reporting low mood, anxiety, poor mental health and I want to talk about that terminology.
“Actually, those young people have been incredibly resilient and we have seen young people who said, you know, on week one, ‘I feel apprehensive, I feel anxious and worried and fearful’, who their own resilience brought them through to the other side.
“So, rather than labelling a generation as a generation experiencing and suffering from mental health issues, I think we really need to acknowledge that we have a very strong, resilient generation that we should be incredibly proud of, who are coming through the lockdown, and some of the main problems we’ve seen when they’ve gone back into school, when they’ve come out of lockdown, it’s been a readjustment.”
Ms Dorries added that some people “surprisingly enjoyed lockdown with their children for a year, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”
Asked about reports of five-year-olds having panic attacks, Ms Dorries said this is the kind of language “which I think we need to be very careful about”.
She said: “I think we need to be really careful about the language that we use around children and young people, and sadly I’ve seen some unfortunate language being used and I’m beginning to feel the kickback from that from stakeholders, sector, mental health trusts, because what we cannot do is hang the label of mental health around everyone’s neck, because it just isn’t the case.”
Ms Dorries said it is important to educate people about wellbeing, “because we’ve almost taught the nation into believing they’ve got mental health problems, when in fact what they may have is just the low level of anxiety”.
Because of the “overarching umbrella of mental health”, she is concerned that some young people are being referred to services when the tools they need to manage their wellbeing “are more easily obtained elsewhere”, such as the NHS’s Every Mind Matters resource.
MPs heard separately that about 40% of children and young people with mental health issues were accessing services.
Professor Tim Kendall, national clinical director for mental health at NHS England, said services take self-harm very seriously, but the vast majority of cases do not come to their attention.
He said: “But self-harm is incredibly common especially amongst the young, so much so that I have a worry that it’s become always normalised in young people.”
Earlier on Tuesday, NHS England said that young people had been “hit hard” by the Covid-19 crisis as it announced a £40 million funding boost.
The money will be used for a number of schemes including action to prevent children being shipped miles away when a mental health hospital bed is not available in their area.
It will also help enhance community care to try to prevent hospital admissions and bolster eating disorder services.
Ms Dorries said the Government is playing “catch-up” over mental health, with a huge treatment gap and underfunding before 2016.
The mental health minister was asked what is stopping the Government from rolling out mental health teams to all schools more quickly.
The ambition is to have 35% of pupils reached by 2023.
She said this is not the only area needing investment, with mental illness a “serious part of our funding”.
She added: “I have no barrier when I request money for mental health from Treasury, this is a problem that government wants to solve.
“It’s a case of we need the people through to deliver the services – that is happening now, it’s work in process now.”